Living in the Boyaca department of Colombia for 4 months has given me some insight into the culture and idiosyncrasies here. While I am still an outsider “gringa,” I feel like I am now somewhat of an insider to the “Boyacense” customs and ways of life, and I would like to share a few of these surprising, unique highlights of Boyaca that I would not have been able to be privy to, had I just blown through this part of the country like most tourists.
- People wear RUANAS
Throughout Boyaca, people from the Campo (Rural Areas) are famous for wearing heavy woolen ponchos called “ruanas” which help to shield them from the harsh rain and wind outside of the big cities. They also commonly wear black felt bowler hats, and on Sundays, they layer their nice suits under the ruana. Within the big cities, Boyacense people will claim that they do not abide by these traditional fashions, but in any city or town in Boyaca, you can find at least one or two short Boyacense people or families sporting their outfits proudly. And I guarantee that nearly every household in the Boyaca department owns at least one woolen ruana.
- The Boyacense culture is very FORMAL
When we first heard we were heading to Tunja for this teaching placement, our hosts in Popayan (in the extreme south of Colombia) immediately made us aware of the cultural (albeit stereotypical) differences in Boyaca. Specifically, Boyacense people are extremely formal, and in place of “tu” (you) or “usted” (formal you), they use “su merced” or “sumerce” for short. This literally means, when addressing someone in Boyaca, you will often hear people saying, “your mercy” instead of just “you.” According to locals, this tradition stems from the native Muiscas encountering the Spanish, and wanting to give the strange visitors respect, but I think there could be a bit of indigenous subjugation rolled into it as well. Regardless, “sumerce” is definitely a remnant of a more antiquated Spanish that was used in the time of the Spanish conquest of South America. During this time period in Spain, people used an even more extreme form of this title: “vuestra merced” (formal collective “your mercy”), but the colonial Colombians evolved the title to something a bit less formal (still VERY formal) “sumerce.” While many older residents of Boyaca, like my co-teacher, genuinely use this title in conversation, many young people use it rather jokingly. I have addressed my students as “sumerce” several times, and they find it quite amusing. Perhaps using “sumerce” is more of an insider thing.
- They love BOCADILLO
Bocadillo is weird. You really just have to try it yourself to understand the flavor and texture, but it is basically a gummy, guava-flavored treat that everyone in Boyaca loves – they hide it in their pizza crusts (that was a nice surprise the first time), top their burgers with it, or just eat it straight. During the “refrigerio” or snack time in my school, the students are given a breakfast of sorts, which almost always includes a small hunk of purpley-pink bocadillo. In markets and street stands, vendors will sell it by the pound, usually with a side of cheese – something that kind of makes my stomach turn upon sight. However, I think I will inevitably pine for bocadillo after I leave Colombia…just don’t put it on my pizza.
- They are big on CYCLING, and not so much on soccer
While the rest of Colombia (and South America, let’s be honest) prioritizes futbol (soccer) over all other sports, in the Boyaca department, cycling is king. The Tour de France cyclist Nairo Quintana is a departmental treasure, and a large statue paying homage has been erected in his hometown, Combita - a small ruana-ridden pueblo just north of Tunja. Every weekend, the streets of Tunja and the surrounding countryside are flooded with cyclists of all ages, and many of my co-teachers’ weekend plans usually consist of cycling around town with their friends. It’s no wonder that some of Colombia’s great cyclists have come from this part of the country. The rolling, and sometimes steep, hills provide a challenging landscape on which to practice, and the punishingly high elevation probably gives locals superpowers in lung capacity and conditioning. As a sad comparison, the local futbol team, Patriotas, has little to no following or presence in Tunja, despite playing in a large, newly constructed stadium that would seem to be the center of town. Because cycling rules here, almost no one attends the futbol games in town; we tried to attend a game just for fun one time, and were put off by the near silence of the stadium, and the difficulty to find tickets. From the rowdy, hyped-up South American futbol games we had come to know and love in Montevideo and Quito, this futbol was depressingly on the other side of the spectrum. So, we decided to get pizza across the street instead of wasting time and money on the Patriotas game.
- It’s the OLDEST part of Colombia, with a lot of history
Boyaca is full of visible history, in its small towns, tourist draws, and natural wonders. We have enjoyed touring around this department, visiting other fellows from our program and expanding our view of Boyaca; from the tiny pueblito of Mongui on the edge of the Paramo, to larger yet still quaint Paipa located 45 minutes away from Tunja, each town has its unique historical charm. Locals are very proud of their native Muisca heritage and legacy – the Muiscas were one of the first cultures to interact closely with the Spanish conquistadors, and later helped to construct the iconic colonial buildings and churches that dot every single town in Boyaca. Villa de Leyva, about an hour from Tunja, serves as the best example of well-preserved colonial pueblo; the main plaza truly does transport visitors to another time. Finally, at the formation of what we now know as Colombia, Boyaca played a huge part of the fight for independence from Spain. The final deciding battle - with Simon Bolivar commanding - was fought at the “Puente de Boyaca” (Boyaca’s Bridge) just outside of Tunja proper. While very small in size, the bridge symbolizes the birth of Colombia, and causes Boyaca to be very present in all Colombia history. The bridge and Boyaca are mentioned in the national anthem, and there is even a national holiday called the “Battle of Boyaca” day.
- A Boyacense DIET is mostly potatoes, onions, and meat.
While most dishes in Boyaca are unique and different from the food I have tasted in other parts of South America, people from here somehow always must integrate potatoes, meat, and onions into their delicacies. As we enjoyed a traditional boyacense meal in the countryside one afternoon, the host admitted that in Boyaca, food can only be classified as a meal if comes with potatoes. More specifically, small yellow “papas criollas” are the potatoes of choice, and it is true; when cooked long and carefully, and with a little salt sprinkled on top, they are quite delicious. The main dish of Boyaca is called the “fritanga,” which is basically just a bunch of different sausages (blood sausage, a pink sausage, and a brat-like sausage), piled on top of a healthy batch of papas criollas. I think this particular dish is pretty disgusting – the tiendas that make fritanga always have a think meat-and-potato stench rolling out onto the street. Finally, long green onions are a point of pride here. Due to the climate, Boyaca is a perfect place to grow onions, and especially in Aquitania, an isolated, cold pueblo on the banks of Lake Tota, the hills are covered in onion fields. These onions are often mixed into all kinds of dishes: eggs, soups, salads; and are the base of my favorite condiment: aji.
- The MUSIC is … different.
For the most part, the young people of Boyaca prefer listening to Reggaeton and the likes of Daddy Yankee, Nicky Jam, and J Balvin, especially when frequenting night clubs like Joaquina and Tomasa here in Tunja. However, surprisingly, when I ask my high school students about their favorite music, they often respond with: Vallenato, Bachata, Cumbia, Joropo, and Carranga. These traditional, yet distinct types of music can only be found in Colombia, and contribute to the strong cultural identities of each department and region of the country. The Carranga is 100% Boyaca, The Joropo comes from the region just south of Boyaca, Los Llanos (Meta), Cumbia comes from the coast, and it seems Bachata and Vallenato have permeated throughout the country. Despite the strong cultural identities, it seems people here like music of all kinds, and even know how to dance to them all. A few of my students are part of a talented dance crew; I have seen them perform a number of times, and I find it incredible how they can change their steps and rhythm in such a way to put together a completely different type of tone of dance.
- The CLIMATE is incredibly varied throughout the region
Tunja is cold. Aquitania is even colder and windier. Villa de Leyva is chilly but pleasant. Paz de Rio and Miraflores are lovely and warm. Moniquira is bordering on hot. But, no matter in what city you are, the daily weather can change at the drop of a hat, which is why I must always carry a sweatshirt, my rain jacket, an umbrella, and dress in layers so I can adjust to the conditions. I take it on almost like a challenge, and the weather consistently keeps me on my toes.
Author: Amee Templin
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